Viktor Witkowski

Gordon Parks: Doll Test, Harlem, New York, 1947

I call the United States my home. Poland is my native land and Germany my homeland. In the current political situation in the U.S., where one political party has abdicated responsibility, I find myself looking to Europe for answers and possible solutions. In the USA the pandemic and its volatile virus have been declared Democrats by the administration and anybody who questions state-wide openings, wears masks to protect others or demands federal support for the most vulnerable is anti-patriotic, anti-free speech and an enemy of the people.
The other pandemic that has had its grip on this country for decades is police violence and police violence against Black Americans. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that there are no official, annual statistics on police use of excessive force in the U.S. A 1999 report titled USA: Race, Rights and Police Brutality by Amnesty International highlights the Police Accountability Act which was passed by Congress in 1994, but which was never implemented. The problem is that this ‘legislation does not require local police agencies to keep their own records on the use of force or to submit data to the Justice Department, so any data collection system at present must depend upon the voluntary cooperation of police agencies.’ Aside from estimates released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (which hover roughly around 1,000 people killed each year by police), there are few reliable sources and no consistent nation-wide effort.
In Germany, the number of people shot and killed annually by police averages at around 10. Within the context of Europe that number is high, but it also explains why the largest Black Lives Matter demonstrations outside the U.S. happened in Germany: partly out of solidarity and partly due to racism, far-right ideologies and violence among German police forces. Yet the numbers from both countries speak a separate language. While in the U.S. 19 unarmed black men were fatally shot in the first five months of 2015, in Germany 15 citizens of any race were killed by police in two years.
To defund and reimagine law enforcement in the United States is not a utopian or radical idea; it is a response to a problem that needs to be fixed. We should not accept 1,000 dead each year when other countries and many of our allies abroad demonstrate that there are alternative ways of limited, yet effective, policing. And whenever we are faced with immense societal changes and calls to better our system, this must extend to calls to include the arts.
What we need to do at this moment is to defund the police and refund the arts. The Federal Art Project (1935-1943), which emerged during the Great Depression to primarily employ artists, can serve as a model. In addition to public commissions, the Federal Art Project funded various projects that documented American life in urban and rural areas. Some artists and particularly photographers like Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Edward and Louis Rosskam, and Marjory Collins helped to make class and race divisions visible. The FAP also established community art centers across the country and made art available to a larger section of the population.
Canada, Scandinavia, and countries like Germany are known for generously funding the arts. In late March of this year, Germany passed a bill that provided the creative sector, including artists and galleries, with aid in the amount of 56 billion US Dollars (in contrast, the $2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed in Congress included $25 million for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, $7.5 million for the Smithsonian and $75 million for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities). The most important aspect of public funding for artists is that it increases their independence from day jobs and from the art market. As an art writer and an artist, I regularly encounter people (in the US and Europe) who argue that European artists are not as competitive, professional, or as driven as their American counterparts. This argument sounds like the tired Republican claim that somebody who receives living-wage unemployment benefits will quit working.


The contemporary U.S. art world is broken too, and it needs to be reimagined. One of the main indicators of its failure is that women artists are still underrepresented as are minorities and people of color. Based on data from 30 museums that were surveyed by, only 2.3% of all acquisitions and gifts between 2008 and 2018 included work by African American artists. Work by women that was sold on art auctions between 2008 and 2019, made up only 2% of total sales. A new Federal Art Project is a starting point that would allow artists and progressive institutions/galleries to act autonomously and focus on how to advance their mission of inclusivity.
If we question how law enforcement is funded and how we need to cut and reallocate that funding, we also need to question what constitutes the economic value of contemporary visual art. Is it the experience economy of art fairs (i.e.: the art fair experience as a lifestyle for the business and social elite) that does more damage than good to how contemporary art is valued? Do we accept art’s commercialization as a given since it benefits some? In his book Art and the Global Economy, John Zarobell asks if:

“… commerce exists to nurture culture, or is it rather that the force of culture has been harnessed to feed the evolving dynamics of consumerism, in which the highest-value item is the production of a rich and memorable experience? Perhaps the truth is darker still. An alternative analysis of the fair would consider art as not the point at all but rather the purported reason to assemble High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and to promote social cohesion among an international elite.”

Do we dare to reimagine a more sustainable economic support system for the arts? A model like the Federal Art Project will not solve every problem, but it is a starting point to revalue contemporary visual art in the U.S. as a common, public good. Similar to conversations around policing, universal health care, earning a living wage, unemployment and retirement benefits – our desire in the U.S. to fix all of these issues once and for all does not have to remain wishful thinking. As dark as these times are, the recent nation-wide demonstrations are proof that we are headed the right way. We just need to make sure to keep the pressure up and use art and our voices to draw attention to what is at stake.

Volume 35 no. 1 September / October 2020

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